Nikiski fire dept. in new hands

Chief, assistant chief, battalion chief hand in resignations

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2007

When operational issues within the Nikiski Fire Department brought Battalion Chief Doug Nightingale before Borough Mayor John Williams last fall, he offered to resign if it would help fix the problem. A 30-year veteran of the department, when the mayor asked for resignations from him, Assistant Chief Warren Isham and Chief Fred Swen, Nightingale just followed through on his offer.

“I’ve got no axes to grind,” said Nightingale, who turned his resignation in last Thursday. “I was right at the point where I was ready to retire anyway. At this point the little nudge is a very welcome thing and I’m happy to be retired.”

Issues arose when Swen entered the department that affected employee morale, training and recruitment, Nightingale said. After a meeting with Williams, the mayor asked the board of directors to interview all fire department employees to determine the best course of action.

“The overwhelming consensus among the employees (was that) the chief didn’t understand the operation of our department, and that as a civil servant, he was attempting to integrate previous policies of the civil service end of the operation of our department, which didn’t fit there,” Nightingale said,

Things like not knowing employees’ names or schedules affected daily operation of the department and left Nightingale, who, as battalion chief, is also a shift manager, guessing as to who was supposed to show up for work on any given day.

“It was a constant surprise to me on a daily basis who was going to be there and what was going on,” he said. “When you’re a seniored administration, you believe information is going to flow to you as well as from you. When it doesn’t, it makes things hard.”

Swen and Isham weren’t available for comment.

Mark Cialek, president of the Nikiski Fire Department Board of Directors, said the board is satisfied with Swen’s job performance, but the department needed to “move in a different direction.”

“The administration was not feeling like they were doing what needed to be done as far as what was going on in the department,” Cialek said. He added that although last fall’s series of employee interviews indirectly fueled the decision to ask for Swen’s resignation, it wasn’t personally motivated. “It was for the good of the department. It was a management-type decision.”

According to the minutes from the Feb. 7 board of director’s meeting, Cialek reported that though the board felt emergency service wasn’t adversely affected, employee interviews did reveal an overall dissatisfaction with the way Swen and his administrators did their job. The minutes read: “It is the consensus of this board that the Nikiski Fire Service Area administrative personnel have neglected their duty in providing direction for this department on all levels, which has subsequently affected morale and day to day operations of the Nikiski Fire Service Area.”

Nightingale speculates that the reason he was asked to resign was because he was more vocal about the issues than other employees.

“I was selected to be the spokesperson for the department,” he said. “Everybody came to me and I was the loud voice that said things aren’t right, and the loud voice gets noticed.”

Cialek said department service wouldn’t suffer even though Swen and two of his top chiefs are gone. When Swen handed his resignation in Monday morning, former Nikiski Chief Dan Gregory took over and will be acting chief until a replacement is found, and the mayor was able to fill the other two vacant positions with existing personnel.

“It was a plus for the mayor to do it as smoothly as possible,” said Tim Navarre, the mayor’s chief of staff. “There’s no disruption in the force or in the capabilities of the department.”

Both Navarre and Cialek said Swen, Nightingale and Isham were welcome to apply for other jobs in the borough.

“(There’s) nothing underneath that wouldn’t allow them to be eligible for hire,” Navarre said. “It was a change in leadership. (The) board and mayor concurred that it was in the best interests of the department to hire a new chief and to make some changes to the personnel.”

It’s unlikely that Nightingale will apply for a borough job anytime soon.

“(I’m going on) a six-week ride on my Harley,” he said. “(I’m) going to ride down to Austin, Texas, do a little country-western dancing, catch the rally in Sturgis and visit friends and family in Minnesota.”

Jessica Cejnar can be reached

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